Monday, February 23, 2015

Honesty and emotion on Lena Dunham's Girls and the much-needed comfort of cookies

I've been a fan of the TV series Girls from the very beginning. There have been many moments when Lena Dunham's (sometimes brutally) honest depiction of just how self-absorbed and unaware young women can be struck a chord and made me realise how much I've grown up since my early twenties.

I haven't enjoyed this latest series as much. Or at least I wasn't enjoying it until I watched episode 5.

This is the episode when Hannah returns to New York to find that her boyfriend Adam has moved in with another girl, that she has been replaced in his heart and that his life has moved on without her in it. She reacts in typically over-dramatic Hannah fashion (although, to be fair, I think we'd all be just as dramatic if we discovered that our boyfriend was living with someone else and hadn't bothered to tell us that our relationship was over).

This episode culminates with Hannah and Adam having a heartfelt conversation where they discuss their past relationship and where they now stand with each other in a very open and rational way. They talk about what they had and how it's gone and how they both need to leave it behind and move on to something new - although Adam is obviously more ready to do this than Hannah is.
This entire conversation felt so real to me (though it must be acknowledged that life rarely affords us the opportunity to say exactly what we feel and think at exactly the right time as it does on TV). It touched upon the sadness we all feel when letting go of something that was special; how difficult it is to recognise when the moment is right for us to do this; the loss and heartbreak we feel when someone is no longer a part of our lives; and yet how vital it is that we make that break and move on to better and happier times.

These feelings lived on in me long after I finished watching the show and I needed the comfort of cookies. So I made these almond and ginger cookies.

They're adapted from a Lilly Higgins recipe. (She's a Cork lady and a great baker.)

Makes 10 regular sized cookies
50g olive oil
60g light muscovado sugar
75g almond butter
100g plain flour
1/2 teaspoon bread soda
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
40g ginger nuts (stem ginger)*, roughly chopped
2 teaspoons of the syrup from the stem ginger
40g almonds, roughly chopped
30g sesame seeds 

  • Preheat the oven to 180 C/350F.
  • Line 2 baking trays with parchment paper.
  • Mix the olive oil, sugar, almond butter, flour, soda and ginger in a bowl until well combined.
  • Add the chopped ginger nuts, syrup and chopped almonds and mix again.
  • Roll teaspoons of the dough into balls and then roll the balls in the sesame seeds until they are coated.  
  • Place on the baking tray and flatten slightly. (These cookies don't spread out much while baking.)
  • Bake for 10 minutes or until golden brown.  Allow to cool on the tray and then dig in.

Episode six of Girls shows in Ireland tonight and I've only got one cookie left. Perhaps I need to get baking?

*Some of you have expressed confusion about ginger nuts/stem ginger. They are pictured on the spoon in the photo above and are essentially preserved, candied ginger bottled in a sweet syrup. You'll find them for sale in an increasing number of supermarkets but I often find mine in Middle Eastern stores (where they are cheaper too). 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

My week in dinners

I don't know if there was ever a time when food was simple. The ingredients we cook with, the way in which we cook them and how we eat have always been indicators of status. Here in Ireland, the high society who lived in grand houses dined on the finest foods for centuries while peasants subsisted on potatoes, oats and hardy vegetables such as carrots, parsnips, cabbage and kale.

However, I think food has become more complicated in recent years. Turkey Twizzlers or tofu, chia pudding or Coco Pops, sliced pan or artisan sourdough; what you eat has never said more about who you are and how you want others to see you.

Food bloggers have certainly had a part to play in this. We all work hard to style our food photos to make them look as appealing as possible. Everything from the dish the meal is served in to the artfully-placed green herb placed on top has been carefully considered.  The words and images we use convey a message about food and it's not always a helpful one. And nor does it necessarily represent the way we eat every day.

While I'm lucky in that I love cooking and experimenting with new flavours and dishes, I don't always have the time or energy to cook at the end of a long day. And while I certainly pay some attention to how I present the food when I plate it up, the pressure to put food on the table means that I don't style it to within an inch of its life. For one thing, the food would be stone cold by the time I was satisfied with how it looked!

This is why I was intrigued by an idea suggested by fellow food blogger Bumbles of Rice. She called on food bloggers to tell their readers just what they had for dinner for five consecutive days. 

So, here is my week in dinners:

Wednesday: Minestrone soup
A solo dinner: which explains why I'm eating early and reading the paper

I usually try to make a batch of soup for dinner once a week.  I always make extra as I mostly work from home during the day and a bowl of soup makes for a quick and easy lunch. It's also a good fall-back option if I'm too tired to cook dinner on another evening during the week.
You can find the recipe for this soup here

Thursday: Jamie Oliver's cauliflower risotto with anchovy breadcrumbs

Forgive the god-awful picture but this is what it looks like when you use your camera phone and  there is no natural light - it is dinner time and February in Ireland after all!

Friday: grilled miso salmon, brown rice and veggies

Once again: the evening light is rubbish
I eat at least three servings of fish every week, with a focus on oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, etc. This ties in with my OMS diet which prioritizes intake of omega 3 fats, which we should all be trying to get more of.

Saturday: Potato and cauliflower curry from Olive Magazine - I adapted this to suit my diet and added this mushroom and spinach dish, some flat breads and yoghurt. (I know it's cauliflower again but it's cheap at the moment and I had lots of it in the fridge!)

Sunday: Pork roasted in the oven with onions, apples and wholegrain mustard served with mashed potatoes, crushed carrots and parsnips and brussel sprouts 

Because my diet means I can't eat meat, my boyfriend rarely eats meat during the week. To make up for this, I usually cook him something meaty on Sundays, serving myself something that is easy to rustle up alongside. On this day, I had a baked mackerel dish with the same sides.
But I forgot to take a picture as we were rushing out to the cinema.

Monday: I had some mashed potato and mackerel left over from Sunday as well as some tuna in olive oil in the cupboard so I used them to make this:

Tuna (and mackerel) fishcakes with parsley and caper salad from Olive Magazine again

(I know this is six days of dinners. But because I forgot to photograph one, I thought you deserved one extra!)

Your daily dinners are probably different to mine. They may not focus as much on fish and vegetables. Maybe you don't have the same amount of time or inclination to cook as I do . You might also live closer to a good takeout or a restaurant where you can eat cheaply and well (8 miles from Dingle town - where most good restaurants are pricey - I don't have such luxuries). Whatever the case, I'd love to hear about your week in dinners.

Friday, February 6, 2015

A good movie, a bad memory and a great cake

I went to the cinema to see The Theory of Everything last weekend. It’s the story of a young woman who falls in love with a young Stephen Hawking and the struggles she faces as they build a relationship, a family and a life together as his body deteriorates and eventually gives way to severe disability.

The two central performances are wonderful and this film is enormously affecting on a personal level. So, I’d recommend that you see it. But I’m not really here to give a film review. I’m here to write about a scene in the film that brought back memories of one of the worst times in my life with MS.

Most of you will know that Stephen Hawking has motor neuron disease, a disease of the central nervous system that leads to progressive disability and ultimately to death. Early in the movie, when he is being tested prior to his diagnosis, he is asked to do a simple task – to touch the thumb of his right hand to each of the fingers on that same hand.

Eddie Redmayne (who plays Hawking) is so convincing at portraying the confusion he feels when he realises he can’t do this.  Later, there’s a look of sheer anguish on his face as he tries to do it again at home. He suddenly understands he can no longer bid his body to do as he wishes. He’s losing control of his physical self.

My stomach churned as I watched this scene and I can feel it churning still. It could have been a scene from my life because my neurologist asked me to complete that same task before I was diagnosed with MS (I suppose it’s a standard diagnostic tool) and I remember the sense of shock I felt when I wasn’t able to do it. Although my brain was thinking the thoughts that had always previously resulted in moving my fingers, I couldn’t make them meet my thumb. My disbelieving eyes saw them miss every time. Despite trying over and over and over again, I couldn’t get them to do what I wanted.

This persisted for the six weeks that the attack lasted. At random moments of every day, I would try to complete the task again only to have my heart sink when I saw that I still wasn’t able to do it.

However, I did eventually recover and was once again able to make my fingers and thumbs do exactly what I asked of them. But I have never forgotten how frightened I felt when I lost control of my body. Sometimes, when I’m sitting at the dinner table or watching TV or being driven in a car, I absentmindedly find myself touching my fingers to my thumb, as if subconsciously reassuring myself that all is still well – that I am still well.

And so far, I have been.

I attribute my continued good health to my diet. And whenever I feel tempted to eat butter, cream and chocolate, I remind myself what it felt like not to be able to use my right hand properly.
I used to have to remind myself of this quite often, especially when I would think of Mary Berry's banana bread - which was once my go-to banana bread in the café and at home. 
But I don't have to control myself with such mind games anymore - at least not when it comes to banana bread. I've come up with a recipe that is not the same as Mary Berry's but it's just as delicious and it packs a much bigger nutritional punch.

I thought I'd share it with you today.
200g mashed ripe bananas* (this will require two to three bananas, depending on their size)
1 tablespoon almond milk
50g olive oil (choose one with a mild flavour)
25g cocoa powder
50g plain flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
75g sugar
60g walnuts, chopped 
20g banana chips, chopped (optional)
3 tablespoons cocoa nibs (optional - especially if you are strict about OMS)
1 egg

  • Preheat your oven to 170 C/340 F.
  • Line a small loaf tin with some baking parchment. I find that the easiest way of doing this is rubbing a left-over butter wrapper over the inside of the tin, scrunching the parchment into a ball with my hands and then using my fingers to shape the parchment to the bottom and sides of the tin. The scrunched-up nature of the paper makes it much more pliable.
  • Combine all of your ingredients in a bowl and mix thoroughly.
  • Pour into the lined tin and place in the centre of your oven.
  • Cook for 30 to 35 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean.
Enjoy the cake with a cup of tea (and if you can, go to see the movie!)

* There's no such thing as over-ripe bananas. The blacker they are, the better they will be for baking, producing super-moist cakes.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The simplest of pleasures

There are times when you come across something so obvious that you can't help but slap your forehead in disbelief. You ask yourself how come you'd never thought of it before.

This is what I found myself doing while teaching a cookery class late last year. We were preparing the ingredients for a Thai curry and because some of the students had never used lemon grass before, I passed a blade (is this what we call a piece of lemon grass?) around the room so that they could all see - and sniff - it up close.

I then showed them how to peel off the dry outside layer, bash the remaining layers with a rolling pin to release flavour and fragrance and then chop it up finely for use in the curry.

At which point, someone piped up that they didn't throw the outer layer away. Instead, they added it to ginger peel and water and brewed a tea.

I immediately stopped in my tracks and did as she suggested, brewing a simple and refreshing cup of tea for everyone.

I've been brewing this tea ever since because not only does it have sharp, clear flavours, I've also found it works wonders on winter colds. A drizzle of honey takes it up another notch in the flavour - and health - stakes too.

So, this blog post isn't really a recipe. It's more of a suggestion. 
The next time you're using lemon grass and ginger, don't throw away the peel.
Put it in a saucepan instead.
Cover it with cold water.
Bring it to the boil and simmer for five minutes. 
Allow to cool. (The flavours will infuse even more)
Reheat for a cup of warming and restorative tea.

A cup of tea: it's one of life's simplest yet greatest pleasures. 

It's up to you whether you choose to strain the peel from the liquid or not. It makes no real difference either way.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The big FAT misunderstanding and a recipe for figgy flapjacks

Fat and the role it plays in our diet and in our bodies has been in the news a lot lately. From the way it's been reported in the media, the current prevailing wisdom is that fat is no longer a culprit in the fight against obesity. We've been getting it wrong all along. The new villains are sugar and refined carbohydrates.

Sigh of exasperation.

There is some truth to this but, as per usual with the way the media pounces on any stories relating to food, it's over-simplified. For years we were told to replace butter with margarine spreads (yuck!) and now we're being told to eat butter to our heart's content. The true nutritional understanding lies somewhere between the two. 

I don't claim to be an expert but because my Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis diet is all about fat, I've done a lot of research into this issue. Based on what I've learned, here's what the general population should know about fat:

1: Saturated fat (the fat found in foods such as meat, cheese, butter, cream, milk and coconuts) is not bad. In fact, a little of it is actually very good for you. But there's the rub: I do mean a little. As always, it's a case of everything in moderation.
(If you've got MS, the advice regarding saturated fat is VERY different but that's another blog post entirely.)

2: Very few of us get enough omega 3 fats from the food we eat. These fats are vital to our body's overall health, especially the strength of our immune system. Most of us know we can get omega 3 by eating oily fish such as mackerel, sardines, salmon and herrings. But with the world's fish stocks under severe pressure and the health and environmental risks associated with eating farmed fish, it may not be possible (or even desirable) for everyone to get their omega 3 by eating fish.
There are other options. Flaxseed and flaxseed oil are both high in omega 3. Flax is grown here in Ireland and it's a sustainable healthy product. Chia seeds and walnuts are good sources too.

3: Sunflower oil, vegetable oil and oils that come in clear plastic containers are generally to be avoided. Although they have been sold as healthy alternatives for years, this is not the case.
In pre-industrial times, oil was perishable. It deteriorated quickly because it reacted to light, heat and air so traders would sell small quantities of oil which would be stored in ceramic sealed containers in the home. 
(You know those pretty ceramic oil dispensers you see for sale in gift shops in the south of France? Well, they had a practical purpose as well as an aesthetic one. The opaque container meant the oil wasn't exposed to light. The seal prevented it from being exposed to air. And the heavy insulation of the ceramic material meant it never got too hot either. It wouldn't go rancid before it could be used. The same thinking is behind the reason why all good brands of olive oil - and other oils - are sold in dark bottles of thick glass.)

So, how come oils can be sold in clear plastic containers, exposing them to light for months on end while they sit on supermarket shelves and kitchen counters? It's because they have been chemically treated so that they are no longer perishable. This is good for the companies who sell these oils but not for the people who consume them. The chemical treatments destroy any health-giving nutrients originally contained in these oils and, in many cases, create dangerous toxins instead.
There's a huge amount of reading you can do on this topic. If you're interested, I'd recommend starting with Fats that Heal: Fats that Kill.

I don't want to turn into a ranting evangelist so I'll leave it at this.
- Saturated fat is good for you IN MODERATION.
- Most of us need more omega 3 in our diet.
- Be careful what oils you use when cooking. Oils that come in clear plastic containers and are able to sit in your kitchen for months without spoiling are not beneficial to good health. 

Now as a thank you for putting up with my lecture, here's a delicious recipe for fig-filled flapjacks. It's packed with good fats and naturally unrefined sugars.

The ingredients are simple:
225g oats
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
3 tablespoons pumpkin seeds
60g chopped dried figs
60g chopped almonds
100g walnut oil
75g maple syrup

You will also need a rectangular baking tin measuring 23cm by 28cm (or 9 inches by 11 inches)

  • Pre-heat your oven to 160 C/320 F
  • Chop the figs and almonds.
  • Mix all of the dry ingredients in a bowl.
  • Pour in the oil and the maple syrup and combine all of the ingredients thoroughly using a wooden spoon.
  • Tip the mixture into the baking tin and flatten it with the palm of your hand.

  • Cook in the oven for 25 minutes or until golden on top.
  • Leave to cool in the tin and then cut into 9 squares.
  • Enjoy with a cup of tea or eat as a snack on the go.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Great Escape: Christmas in Prague

Well, how was your Christmas?

As you may remember from my excitement before the festivities, I decamped for the holidays this year. Normally, Christmas is a high-octane time in my house with my partner's children, their assorted boyfriends and girlfriends and other friends and family members joining us for a few days. It's always lots of fun but there's inevitably stress involved too. Because last year had been overly filled with stress already, my partner and I decided to run away this year. We shirked our responsibilities and decided to take time out for ourselves, somewhere far away.

We went to Prague for a week and had lots of self-indulgent fun and much-needed rest and relaxation.

It was our first visit to the city (and indeed to the Czech Republic) and I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone contemplating a few days away.

Here's why: 
1: The city is very beautiful. Situated on the Vltava River, most of the medieval buildings that line its narrow winding streets miraculously escaped the devastation of WWII and there are architectural delights everywhere. From a fairytale castle that dominates the entire city to Art Nouveau buildings that rival Paris and even Communist and Cubist styles; your eyes will constantly boggle. 

2: The people are friendly. Prague relies hugely on tourism, which means that people in bars, restaurants, hotels and shops speak good English and everyone we met was super smiley and eager to chat.

3: It's very affordable. 
Even though Prague has got more expensive in recent years, it's still possible to enjoy good food and great beer and to stay in a quality hotel for a fraction of the cost that you would pay in Ireland.

If you're thinking of visiting, here are some of the things that we enjoyed best while we were there:

Wandering around the Jewish Quarter of the city
Tip: if you're planning on visiting the Jewish Cemetery, don't queue at the main entrance. There's an office just around the corner where you'll be served much more quickly. You can buy a seven-day ticket here which covers entry to the Spanish Synagogue as well as several other locations. We visited the cemetery and the synagogue and enjoyed both.

The Jewish Cemetery: a place that resonates with history
The Spanish Synagogue
Relaxing in our lovely hotel
We stayed in the Hotel Maximilian in the Jewish Quarter where we enjoyed a fantastic standard of service. Our rooms were comfortable. The staff couldn't have been more helpful. The breakfast was amazing and served until 11.30am every day (12.30 at weekends). We also booked one of their pamper packages which meant that we enjoyed a massage followed by champagne on one of our evenings there - bliss!

Taking a tour with Sandeman's Free Prague Tours
Our tour guide was an experienced theatre actor with a passion for Kafka and he brought the history of this centuries-old city vividly to life. (Just in case you think these tours are free: they're not. It's simply that there is no set fee. You pay what you think the tour is worth.)

Visiting the John Lennon Wall, cooking sausages over a brazier and exploring the Kampa area
We both love John Lennon and the Beatles so we made a pilgrimage to this wall which has assumed great significance in Prague over the years. In 1980, when John Lennon died and Prague was still behind the Iron Curtain, someone posted Lennon-inspired graffiti promoting peace and freedom. This was seen as a challenge to the authorities and was quickly painted over, but just as quickly replaced. The tradition continued and people add their thoughts and images to this day. We both made sure to add some artistic creations of our own. 

It was cold as we made our way to the wall and we saw a café with braziers outside selling sausages. So, we bought a sausage and cooked it on a fork over the fire. This was actually at lunchtime on Christmas Day, so you could say that charred sausage was our Christmas lunch!

Spending a few hours in the Mucha Museum
Czech artist Alphonse Mucha was one of Europe's most respected and creative Art Nouveau artists and this simple museum contains many captivating examples of his work. If you like Art Nouveau, prepare to be inspired!

The food and the beer
As you might have already anticipated, we made sure to treat ourselves to lots of good food. We tried Czech specialities such as Prague ham, goulash and dumplings from food stalls at the Christmas markets and from some of the many excellent restaurants in the city. 

These are the ones we liked best:

Sansho: this trendy eatery is a casual place where the emphasis is on creative cooking using fresh Asian-inspired flavours. We loved all the savoury food but weren't as impressed by the desserts

Cotto Crudo: this fancy Italian is located in the Four Seasons Hotel, which gives you some indication of the fine dining on offer.

Kampa Park: we went here for dinner on Christmas Day (well, we needed something substantial after our lunch of shared sausage !) and absolutely loved it. The food is fantastic. The service is professional and friendly. And the views (make sure you get a seat on the terrace under Charles Bridge) are stunning.

This was the view from our dining table
Lokal: a modern take on a traditional Czech tavern - great food made from quality ingredients, lots of good beer on tap and plenty of raucous conversation.

These are some of the many things we loved about Prague - a city that made Christmas 2014 truly special.

And because we skipped Christmas this year, I'm hoping that the excitement and novelty of next year's festivities will override any potential stress involved!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Wishing you all the merriest of Christmas holidays

Nollaig faoi shéan agus faoi mhaise daoibh go léir.

This is an Irish saying which loosely translates as a blessing of hope and happiness at Christmas and it's something I'd like to wish everyone who takes the time to visit my little corner of the internet. I hope you all enjoy something delicious to eat and the convivial company of family and friends this festive season.

Christmas is going to be a little different for me this year as my partner and I are shirking all of our usual responsibilities and running away to Prague for a week. (We're leaving tomorrow - eek!) I'm very excited and rest assured that I'll tell you all about it when I return.

In the meantime, stay well and happy.

Nollaig shona ón nDaingean 
Happy Christmas from Dingle